Calgary, hashtags and imagination

So Calgary’s city council recently moved to defund their police force (a 5% budget cut) and put that money into local community services (a 30% budget increase for those services).

Calgary council member Shane Keating made this distinction that I found really interesting -

Defunding, in my view, is an absolutely inappropriate word when you talk about what we’re doing. You can call it reallocation. You can call it a reduction . . . (Calling it defunding) is a misuse of the intent and a misuse of the description and a misuse of the actual facts.

This, to me, completely misunderstands the entire purpose of what we’ll call the “#DefundThePolice” movement as a whole.

#DefundThePolice is radical. Radical to the point of being impossible. These three words imply a wild reimagining of how our cities and societies function. These words are an invitation to question the presence of police here and now, and imagine what a world without policing would look like in the future. It is demanding Something at the same time as it begins to understand what that Something even is.

I think everyone has experienced a moment in their life, where you had to shout out that Something was wrong. Dramatically in a relationship, at work, in a mundane way while cooking a recipe, seeing that a traffic accident about to happen — I would call that a human right, to shout out that Something is very wrong, even when you may not know exactly what, or what the perfect solution is.

So five years from now, we will probably not have every police force budget 100% defunded. I would bet money on that. I don’t think the richest and most powerful, the Jeff Bezos and Joe Bidens of the world, know how to accomplish that. But that is not the point. Police existing in 2025 will not have been a failure for #DefundThePolice, because more than any list of specific demands, the hashtag is a call to question and imagine. Any concession made towards hindering police power is a #DefundThePolice victory. Calgary reducing and reallocating their police budget is a major victory for #DefundThePolice, even if politicians like Shane Keating view these phrases as contradictory.

Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld described a recent conversation he had with a community group, and his comments draw a similar distinction to Keating’s, between seemingly contradictory plans for the future of the city —

For some this is about diverting money, for some this is about dismantling police, for others it’s about disarming the police, so it’s important in these discussions to find out where on the continuum individuals are… The deputy chiefs and I had a really good conversation with a community group (Monday) where one of the people said something that I thought was quite profound: ‘We don’t need to defund, we need to define.’

For the record, Neufeld and Keating come off as very reasonable and decent human beings in these articles. Neufeld acknowledges the need for some kind of reform, and Keating is after all in favour of budget cuts. I think the distinctions within their comments reflect the limits of seeing #DefundThePolice as a blueprint towards a specific and immediate future.

If #DefundThePolice is reduced toa grocery list of demands, then yes the differences between these pursuits become extremely important. They wildly contradict each other. Do we want more bodycams for police? More unarmed officers? More hotlines that specify for an ambulance, not an ambulance *and* a squad car? A lower police budget? No police budget?

“Make up your minds, people! We can’t do all of these at once! Pick the ones you want, then get back to us — “

That feels like the typical progression of activism in modern culture, right? Reduce a vision for the future into a polite list of demands. Waste tremendous energy disagreeing on the exact number, wording and order of demands. Divide and conquer. Grind this handily generated bullet list memo into a series of compromises, filter down from country to province to county to city, and throw them in at the end of some council meeting I missed because of work or watching old Community episodes. Cool cool cool.

If, on the other hand, #DefundThePolice remains a primal urge to question the police and imagine a future without them, the differences between tactics stop being contradictory bullet points and mesh together. Different treatments and dosages to remedy cities’ different ailments.

Do we want more bodycams for police? More unarmed officers? More hotlines that specify for an ambulance, not an ambulance *and* a squad car? A lower police budget? No police budget?

The answer to “which one?” is “Yes.”

The list of demands is not the DNA of the movement itself, it is just the opening salvo to bring into each city. See what bullet point catches on locally, and move from there.

So if 2021 sees more body cameras for cops in NYC, better hotline management in Toronto, a lower PD budget in Calgary, better de-escalation training in Miami — that is #DefundThePolice at work. Not mixed messages, not compromises — cities coming closer to the communities that are their cardiovascular lifeblood. Acknowledging the imaginations of the people who pay and bus and eat these empty streets into living cities.

Even if no PD is actually #defunded, the hashtag presents a call to question and imagine. To shout out when something is wrong, even when you don’t know exactly what or how to fix it. Imagination might ebb, rest, or get distracted, but it cannot Lose.

2025 may not see the end of police, but the impossible demand to do so could lead us to a future where police departments are so scared to lose their budget, that they compete to show us how much better they can be all by themselves. The response to that list — of bodycams, hotlines, training, etc — could turn from “pick one” into “we did all that — is there anything else we can do for you?”

That is of course, an overly simplistic, radical and rosy future. We are not headed there by default. I don’t know how to get there, and neither does anyone else. But any step in that direction, in any city, is a victory for #DefundThePolice’s call to question and imagine. And in the meantime, it would mean real, present-day human lives not taken away by the real, present-day threat of police brutality.